Israeli premier to meet Russian president, officials for talks on Iran, Mideast

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was set to meet with President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials Wednesday, beginning a three-day visit expected to be dominated by talks over Iran's nuclear program.

Olmert, who arrived Tuesday night, was also scheduled for meetings with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest threat. Russia, which is building Iran's first, US$800 million (Ђ640 million) nuclear power plant, has impeded international attempts to impose sanctions on Iran for refusing to downscale its nuclear ambitions. Moscow also has rejected international pressure to halt its construction of the plant, which Israel and the West fear could be used to divert nuclear fuel for use in producing bombs.

Israel for years has been sounding the alarm to Russia over Iran's potential to become a nuclear state, but political experts say only the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe are capable of persuading Moscow to harden its position against Tehran.

In addition to the Iranian threat, Olmert is discussing with Russian officials Israel's assertion that Lebanon-based Hezbollah guerrillas used Russian-made missiles in their summer war with Israel, and its fear that Palestinian militants could follow suit. Israel does not accuse Russia of directly supplying Hezbollah, but maintains the arms were sold to Syria and Iran, which sent them on to their Hezbollah proxies.

Russia denies its missiles reached Hezbollah, but Israeli media reported that Russia has issued directives to tighten arms export controls. There have been no Russian reports of tightened controls.

The Iranian threat has become the centerpiece of Olmert's political agenda since the war in southern Lebanon robbed him of his main political initiative, an ambitious plan to follow Israel's 2005 Gaza Strip withdrawal with a large-scale pullback in the West Bank, reports AP.

Hezbollah's barrage of northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets cooled the Israeli public to the idea of further territorial concessions especially at a time when Palestinian militants continue to send homemade rockets into Israel's south.

Olmert's trip is his first abroad since Israel's monthlong war against Hezbollah.